Evolution and Personal Faith: How Christian University Students Resolve the Conflict, Part 3

| By Mark Winslow

image credit: Ryan Pettey/Satellite Pictures

In this ongoing series, today's post from Mark Winslow looks at how Christian biology-related majors at a mid-Western Christian liberal arts university reconciled evolution and their personal religious beliefs.

Four Factors in Resolving the Conflict

Part 1 of this three part series described the influence parents and others had on study participants’ beliefs about evolution and creationism; Part 2 addressed the process through which those participants tried to resolve both personal and interpersonal conflicts in coming to an acceptance of evolution. Today’s Part 3 focuses on the specific factors that eased participants’ acceptance of evolution. The interview protocol did not specifically ask them to identify factors they considered crucial to accepting evolution; however, as participants recounted their stories, patterns emerged from the data to suggest that four factors were important as part of the process of accepting evolution:

  1. relying on the evidence for evolution
  2. negotiating Genesis as non-literal
  3. recognizing evolution as a non-salvation issue
  4. observing professors as role models of Christians who accept evolution.

These four factors are not to be construed as a requisite for accepting evolution. Instead, these four factors helped the process of accepting evolution for the participants.

Relying on the Evidence

The data show that the evidence for evolution was an important consideration for most participants who accepted evolution. A common thread evident in many participants’ dialogue was their dependence on the scientific evidence. Ten participants specifically said the evidence for evolution was incontrovertible. Several participants articulated that though they took their parents’ or teachers’ word at face value in the past, they now demanded evidence from those authority figures to back up their statements.

Rachel noticed herself becoming more reliant on evidence to adjudicate her positions and reflected, “When I was younger, I took everything that everyone said at face value . . . and if an adult said it, it must have been true.” But as an adult herself, Rachel said her line of questioning is now: “Why do you think that? Can you provide more evidence as in ‘why?’ and not just tell me ‘because’?” Rachel’s comments clarify the way many participants had transitioned to a reliance on evidence to support what they held as true. In the context of science, that reliance was on scientific evidence, and many participants said the evidence for evolution was overwhelming.

David was the only participant to categorically deny evolution. He appeared to operate with a mental filter that collected only ideas and purported evidence that supported his existing creationist notions. Incontrovertible evidence for evolution apparently slipped through David’s filter without serious consideration. David was familiar with Intelligent Design arguments regarding the irreducible complexity of biological systems such as blood-clotting mechanisms and the bacterial flagellum (Behe, 1996), which he posited could not be explained by evolution. The researcher, in an effort to remain neutral and not broach the fact that science currently has valid explanations for these mechanisms (e.g. Pallen & Matzke, 2006), asked David how he would react if science found a naturalistic explanation to these systems. David referred to a historical example to state his response:

If they prove it right, I mean everyone from Galileo’s time, they didn’t want to believe the earth wasn’t the center of the universe and he proved that false. . . . If I go to not take those, then I cannot call myself a scientist. If they provide the facts and give them—show they are true, then—and I don’t take them, I can’t consider myself a scientist.

A careful inspection of David’s statements reveals that he never said he would accept the evidence, even if shown to be “true.” Ironically, David’s reference to Galileo is fitting. Several of Galileo’s most vocal critics in the early seventeenth century refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. However, several prominent Jesuit astronomers looked through the telescope and “did not deny the evidence of their senses” (Sobel, 2000, p. 40) and affirmed the Copernican Theory. It appeared as if David was unwilling to look through the telescope.

A Non-Literal Genesis

A second factor for most participants who accepted evolution was negotiating Genesis as non-literal. Most participants asserted they had been raised to believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis by their parents, and the notion that the Bible is literal was taken for granted by many participants from childhood on. All discussed the past and ongoing importance of the Bible in their lives, and indeed, many of these young men and women demonstrated an intimate knowledge of the Bible by referencing and quoting scripture to support their statements. However, participants recognized that a literal interpretation of Genesis was at odds with evolution. Megan wrote in her scholarly paper, “A strictly literal interpretation of the Bible does not mesh with the evidence discovered by science, especially the discoveries made within the past century.”

Furthermore, some participants recognized that an acceptance of evolution would not jeopardize their salvation. This thought process can be paraphrased, “My salvation is unaffected because I can concomitantly accept evolution and remain true to the Bible as it should be interpreted.” These paraphrased statements are echoed in the comments of Gail. When asked what had made the crucial difference in turning the corner in accepting evolution, Gail responded that it was when the Origins professor “brought up the fact that, ‘This isn’t crucial to your salvation and we’re not saying that God didn’t start it all, that God’s not behind it. We’re just saying here are all the natural laws . . . [that] God put in place.’” Gail recognized through her professor that evolution did not countermand a belief in God or in the Bible.

Not a Salvation Issue

Gail’s comments link her recognition of Genesis as non-literal with the third factor in many participants’ acceptance of evolution: the realization that an acceptance of evolution and salvation are not linked. Prior to attending the study site university, many participants never believed that a Christian could accept evolution. At some point, those who held that assumption had to evaluate its legitimacy. Furthermore, five participants in particular had to deal with parents who doubted that accepting evolution could be uncoupled from spiritual standing.

Jennifer, for example, reported that she would go home and tell her parents about her Christian professors who affirmed evolution. She would use that as “leverage,” telling her parents, “So it must be okay. God’s not gonna strike you down cause they’re still alive kind of thing.” Jennifer’s joking notwithstanding, many participants had to make an intentional or unconscious break with their previous assumption that an acceptance of evolution placed a Christian’s salvation in serious jeopardy.

Role Models

The fourth factor in many participants’ acceptance of evolution was observing a Christian professor model a commitment to evolution. The data show that participants viewed their professors as validation that Christians can unapologetically accept evolution.

Megan serves as a poignant example. She first learned about evolution while writing a report for a high school biology class. Megan reported that she “paid no attention” to what she wrote and simply completed the assignment for a grade. But at the university, she remarked, “Here are all these Christians around me and a Christian professor who is having this kind of idea and that actually made me open up to it.” Rather than ignoring evolution as she had done in high school, Megan could consider an acceptance of evolution because it was so powerfully affirmed by her Origins professor, bringing her to a point where she could say, “Maybe I can believe that too.”

Many participants indicated a respect for professors who were genuine and forthright in presenting evolution in a Christian context. Seven participants expressed this sentiment. For example, Ashley commented about the Origins professor:

She has such a humble, low-key sense of spirit that . . . I respect everything that she says and to me she really is true. It was helpful to know that the person standing up there teaching me wasn’t trying to number one impress their opinions on to me. They were just giving them to me and that they weren’t out to prove something. I really felt like she wasn’t trying to prove creationism and she wasn’t trying to prove evolution. She was just presenting things and in turn letting you decide where you stood, but she would give you her opinion.

Rachel noted that it wasn’t enough for the Origins professor to simply claim to be both a Christian and evolutionist – she needed to see it demonstrated by her professor. Rachel explained,

They can say they’re Christian and be an evolutionist, but it would really help for Dr. [Origins professor] because she actually showed you. She’d talk about God so passionately and . . . you knew she was speaking from her heart. You knew she believed it and God’s love, but then she also talked about evolution and so you kinda had to reconcile the two [Christianity and evolution]. . . . My whole life it was just two things that were separate and they must stay separate, but with her they kinda came together and you had to reconcile them.

David once again comes into sharp contrast with the other participants in this study. While he credited his religion professors for shaping his ideas about Christianity, he made no mention of any of his science professors as role models. David appeared so firmly entrenched in his anti-evolution stance that he remained unmoved by the example of his Origins professor and other science professors who affirmed evolution. The mental filter that kept out conclusive evidence for evolution while letting in only purported evidence for David’s existing notions of creationism appeared to extend to authority sources, as well.


To summarize, four factors facilitated many participants’ acceptance of evolution. Participants’ cited Christian professors who avowed evolution, a new reliance on evidence for evolution, the realization that Genesis could be non-literal, and recognition that an acceptance of evolution did not jeopardize salvation.

University professors and those who seek to mentor young people in reconciling science and faith may view this study’s findings as relevant in several ways: first, it may help them gain a better understanding of the mental crucible in which Christian young people attempting to reconcile evolution and personal religious belief find themselves; second, it may help professors recognize the importance of role models who demonstrate a robust faith and an unmitigated acceptance of evolution.

Popular literature often champions the teacher as a potential role model to shape and inspire student learning (e.g., Palmer, 1997), and the same is certainly true in this context; the findings of this study underscore the importance of Christians in higher education who demonstrate integrity to both science and religion. Given participants’ frustration at growing up without seeing Christians who modeled a coherent and positive commitment to science, it’s not surprising that many participants viewed their professors as important role models.

This study’s findings are also consonant with the imperatives given by scholars (e.g., Holmes, 1987; Poe, 2004) who are familiar with the Christian higher education goal of helping students find ways in which religious faith and learning interact in positive ways. Holmes writes,

Students need . . . to gain a realistic look at life and to discover for themselves the questions that confront us. They need to work their way painfully though the maze of alternative ideas and arguments while finding out how the Christian [religious] faith speaks to such matters. They need a teacher as a catalyst and guide (p. 46).

A well-respected science educator writes, “Science does not occur in a vacuum” (Lederman, n.d.). In this study, personal religious beliefs had a great bearing on how participants viewed evolution. In spite of the conflict and apprehension these students faced in seeking ways to reconcile evolution and personal religious beliefs, an unshakable conviction of the reality of God in their life carried them through times of doubt and discouragement.

In the last part of this series, we’ll look more extensively at how students who came to accept that evolution is true retained a robust and life-centering faith.


Behe, M. J. (1996). Darwin’s black box: The biochemical challenge to evolution. New York: Free Press.

Holmes, A. F. (1987). The idea of a Christian college (Rev. ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans

Lederman, N. (n.d.). Specified links to science for all Americans. Retrieved March 3, 2008, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science Project 2061 Web site: http://www.project2061.org/publications/rsl/online/syllabi/lederman/leder5.htm

Pallen, M. J., & Matzke, N. J. (2006). From The Origin of Species to the origin of bacterial flagella. Nature Reviews: Microbiology, 4(10), 784-790.

Poe, H. L. (2004). Christianity in the academy: Teaching at the intersection of faith and learning. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Sobel, D. (2000). Galileo’s daughter: A historical memoir of science, faith and love. New York: Penguin Books.


About the Author

Mark Winslow

Mark Winslow is the Dean of the College of Natural, Social, and Health Sciences at Southern Nazarene University (SNU) in Bethany, OK. He earned a B.S. from Greenville College, an M.S. from the University of Kansas, and his Ph.D. from Kansas State University. Previously, he taught physics and science education at the college level for 18 years. His research interests include understanding how college students accommodate evolution and religious beliefs; and working with undergraduates in developing pedagogical techniques and learning resources for physics and astronomy. Winslow grew up in Taiwan as a missionary kid. He’s married with three children.